A life­long fas­ci­na­tion with Chi­nese law BIO

Drawn in at an early age by a polity whose views dated back for mil­len­nia

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSSAMERICA - By CHEN JIA in San Fran­cisco chen­jia@chi­nadai­lyusa.com

Born in 1949 in Can­ton, Ohio, Robert Berring never thought the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of China — es­tab­lished in the same year — would in­flu­ence his whole life across the Pa­cific Ocean so deeply.

A noted le­gal scholar, he has taught a course en­ti­tled Chi­nese Law and So­ci­ety to un­der­grad­u­ates at UC-Berke­ley for the past 30 years. A to­tal of 150 peo­ple take the class each spring — the limit the room holds. He also teaches Chi­nese law at Berke­ley’s law school.

“No one should grad­u­ate from an elite in­sti­tu­tion like Berke­ley with­out un­der­stand­ing some­thing of China,” he told China Daily USA. “The course has changed a great deal over the years, as China has changed.”

“Some col­leagues have asked me how I could teach the same course for thirty years. But it is not the same course. China has ac­com­plished so much, changed in so many ways, that it is a new course each time,” he said.

“To­day, I re­call stand­ing on the Shang­hai Bund as a Chi­nese friend ex­plained all the won­ders that would be built in Pudong, some laughed, but China did it,” he said. “China is al­ways on the move.”

Berring came to Boalt Hall School of Law, UC-Berke­ley, in 1982 to serve as a pro­fes­sor and di­rec­tor of the law li­brary. Prior to that, he had worked at the Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton, Har­vard Univer­sity, the Univer­sity of Texas and the Univer­sity of Illi­nois.

Berring first en­coun­tered the study of China dur­ing his fresh­man year at Har­vard Col­lege. On the ad­vice of a friend, he en­rolled in a course that was taught by Pro­fes­sor John Fair­banks and his deep fas­ci­na­tion with China be­gan.

He fell in love with the Chi­nese lan­guage quickly, and two sum­mers at Mid­dle­bury honed the class­room skills that he gained at Har­vard.

“China was a world filled with in­cred­i­ble his­tory, com­plete with the great­est he­roes, most evil vil­lains and end­less achieve­ments,” he said. “It pulled me in.

“The Chi­nese view of his­tory, grounded in a polity that had en­dured for mil­len­nia, fas­ci­nated me. What per­spec­tive could the Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence bring when the na­tion had not even lasted as long as a sin­gle Chi­nese dy­nasty?”

In 1971, he re­ceived his un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree from Har­vard. Three years later, he got his law de­gree from Berke­ley, as well as a de­gree in li­brary sciences.

In law school, both at Har­vard and Berke­ley, he was able to work with three im­por­tant schol­ars who were spe­cial­ists in the Chi­nese le­gal sys­tem — Jerome Co­hen, Randy Ed­wards and Stan­ley Lub­man. “Though we ul­ti­mately dis­agreed about many things, they were pre­cious men­tors,” he said.

He be­gan to teach Chi­nese law in 1980, which was also the first time he vis­ited China.

“China in those days, with Deng’s ma­jor re­forms just in the off­ing, was a very dif­fer­ent place,” he re­called.

“I was able to meet Wang Tieya, one of my he­roes, when I stayed at the for­eign guest house at Pek­ing


•1949 Born in Can­ton, Ohio •1971 Re­ceived his un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree from Har­vard •1974 Re­ceived law de­gree from Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, Boalt Hall School of Law, and li­brary de­gree from UC Berke­ley’s then-named li­brary school •1982-present Pro­fes­sor of Law and Law Li­brar­ian at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia (Boalt Hall) School of Law •1986-1989 Held a joint ap­point­ment as dean of the School of Li­brary and In­for­ma­tion Stud­ies. •2003-2004 Served as in­terim dean of the law school •Cur­rent Holds the Wal­ter Perry John­son Pro­fes­sor of Law Chair ap­point­ment Univer­sity”, he said. An em­i­nent Chi­nese ju­rist, Wang was one of the lead­ing au­thor­i­ties on in­ter­na­tional law in China and a judge on the In­ter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Tri­bunal for the for­mer Yu­goslavia.

Dur­ing the same visit, see­ing the me­mo­rial to Li Dazhao in China also held deep mean­ing for Berring. “The li­brar­ian who had helped found the Chi­nese com­mu­nist party was a spe­cial hero. For many years, I was both a law li­brar­ian and a pro­fes­sor, so I used Li in many talks,” he said.

Through­out the 1980s and 90s, Berring trav­elled to dif­fer­ent parts of China, lec­tur­ing on law, li­brary sci­ence and com­put­ers.

He still re­mem­bers go­ing to Bei­jing to run a con­fer­ence in the 1980s. The Chi­nese side wanted to be paid in US dol­lars, so Berring brought $19,000 cash. Their flight landed late and they ar­rived at ho­tel in the mid­dle of the night.

“As we walked down the street, with our pock­ets full of the cash, I said that I was wor­ried. My host as­sured me that there were no thieves in China, and in that time


and place there were not,” he said.

Berring joined the Com­mit­tee on Le­gal Ed­u­ca­tional Ex­change with China (CLEEC), a pro­gram largely funded by the Ford Foun­da­tion that of­fered Chi­nese law pro­fes­sors res­i­den­cies at Amer­i­can law schools.

“For a time, I was the San Fran­cisco con­tact for a va­ri­ety of ex­change pro­grams with China. When some­one ar­rived at the San Fran­cisco air­port, I would make sure that they were taken care of,” he said. “I have en­joyed the friend­ship of so many Chi­nese schol­ars.”


Law pro­fes­sor Robert Berring (left) and one of his stu­dents take a photo at the lat­ter’s grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony.

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